Venice Film Festival: Keaton soars in Birdman

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson in Birdman, a former comic-book movie star, in the first comedy by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson in Birdman, a former comic-book movie star, in the first comedy by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

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FILLING the opening night slot of a film festival is a delicate business. Get it right, like Berlin with The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the press will love you.

Get it wrong – think Cannes and Grace of Monaco – and you could be wiping egg off your face for days. One of the questions coming to the 71st Venice Film Festival, then, was where Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) would land.

The first comedy from Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – whose feature output thus far has comprised the grim-and-gritty laugh-free dramas Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful – the film arrived on the back of surreal online trailers that had largely produced a mixture of bafflement, curiosity and anticipation. In Venice, on the Lido, posters showing a painterly image of Michael Keaton’s face, with a crouching Birdman figure on his head, merely added another layer of bizarreness.

The film eventually screened to warm applause at the first of two pre-gala press screenings on Wednesday morning. Arguably less strange than the trailers, Birdman (****) showcases a layered performance by Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a former comic-book movie star trying to gain crediblity and self respect by penning, starring in and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About. He cannot escape his former alter ego, however, which constantly berates him as a gravelly voice in his head, revealing his self-doubt and insecurities.

Swirling around Keaton is a talented ensemble, including Edward Norton as a method actor for whom life on stage is more real than real-life, Naomi Watts as an actress who has finally achieved her dream of appearing on Broadway, and Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter, fresh out of rehab. Almost everyone needs the play to succeed, but the trouble-hit previews suggest failure looks more likely.

Along the way, Inarritu explores the conflict between art and commerce, the relationship between artists and critics, and between art and criticism; the relationship between actors and their roles, between film-makers and their audience, to name a few. A thick vein of cynicism runs through the film, which may not be to all tastes.

As a barbed commentary on the state of contemporary culture and the impact of social media, the film is stingingly of-the-moment. It berates audiences for favouring sensation and spectacle over ideas, and tries to give the viewer both, reflecting the Riggan-Birdman duality. There is a degree of finger-wagging that can become too much at times.

But although flawed, Birdman is ambitious, elegantly directed, quirky, and unlike anything else in today’s multiplexes – and you don’t often get to say that about a film.

New York also features in Before I Disappear (***), writer-director Shawn Christensen’s stylish expansion of his 2013 Oscar-winning short, Curfew. Set mainly at night, the handsomely-mounted production stars Christensen as Richie, a chain-smoking, heartbroken, debt-ridden loser, who is interrupted while attempting suicide by a call from his estranged sister, who desperately needs him to look after her 11-year-old daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours. Before long, he finds himself bouncing from one seedy location to another, with his precocious, over-achieving niece – who’d like to be anywhere but with him – in tow. That their initial frostiness will thaw is a given. But while the final destination is predictable, Christensen’s assured control of the film’s surprising tonal shifts, offbeat sense of humour, and effective use of music, including Bowie’s Five Years and The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, make the journey worth taking. Ptacek is a real find. Expect to see much more of her.

From this side of the Atlantic, Guy Myhill also makes a noteworthy debut with The Goob (HHH), an immersive drama about a 16-year-old boy’s first love and troubled relationship with his mother’s stock-car racer lover (Sean Harris), during a hot summer in rural Norfolk.

Myhill creates a strong sense of place, observing his characters and their community with the eye of an anthropologist, while newcomer Liam Walpole is quietly engaging as the eponymous teen. Harris’s sleazy, rutting alpha, who treats Goob’s mother’s roadside cafe and surrounding beet fields as his personal fiefdom, and the women who work there as his playthings, is hard to forget. And difficult to like.

It’s not growing pains that the characters in the wonderful The Farewell Party (****) are struggling with, but the pain of old age. Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit’s film explores the ethical minefield of euthanasia when an amateur inventor, Yehezkel, living in a Jerusalem retirement home, creates a machine – amusingly built around a Sabbath timer – to allow a sick friend to painlessly take his own life. Soon, others find out about the device, forcing Yehezkel to decide whether or not to extend his illegal services.

This sounds grim. But despite dealing with such gloomy topics as death, dementia, the debilitating effects of old age, The Farewell Party unfolds with warmth, wit, whimsy and irreverence, without ever understating the seriousness of its themes. It is a difficult balancing act which this heart-warming gem pulls off perfectly.

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